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Who Are America's Best Chefs? These Folks Asked Chefs. Now the Results are Out.

March 21, 2013 06:08 PM ET | Eric Levin | Permanent Link

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If you read restaurant reviews, you know what critics think. If you follow Zagat or sites like Yelp, you know what frequent diners think. And you certainly know what you and your friends think. What's missing? To two food-loving friends chatting over cocktails in Charleston, SC, about a year ago, the answer was obvious: Who do chefs think are the best chefs?

Best Chefs America
The cover of Best Chefs America, a 386-page directory of 4,650 chefs who made the list because they were praised highly by their fellow chefs. The hardcover book sells for $75, even to chefs honored in the book.
Best Chefs America
A page from the new first edition of the book,
Courtesy Best Chefs America
Best Chefs America
Another of the illustrated pages salted between the pages of chef listings.

On March 1, those two friends, joined by two other executives, foodies all, published Best Chefs America, their 386-page hardcover registry of the best chefs in all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

The book lists the names and affiliations of exactly 4,650 chefs—196 in New Jersey.

Beginning last summer, after several months of preparation, Best Chefs America conducted 5,150 telephone interviews with chefs around the country, drawing each of them out as to who in their state or part of the state or city they esteemed most highly.

The only way to get into the book was to be recommended often and highly by one's fellow chefs.

"You couldn't buy your way in," says Ben Biddle, BCA's vice president of business development and one of the four principals. The reason? According to Biddle, one of the other four—Charleston entrepreneur Bill Blalock, BCA's chairman and chief executive officer—financed the entire project "out of his own pocket. There were no outside investors, and no sponsors.

"You couldn't call us and say this or that and get in," says Biddle, a 1995 Princeton graduate and former school headmaster who himself conducted almost 1,000 interviews, including about 70 percent of those in New York City, 20 percent of those in New Jersey and the rest on both coasts and New Orleans. "You simply had to impress the chefs in your area enough that they were mentioning you often and highly."

The interviews—typically 15-25 minutes each—produced what Biddle says were about 70,000 "points of information," which were fed into software designed for the project by Cvent, a corporation based in McLean, Virginia, that bills itself as "the global leader in event management software." The software translated the information into point totals, and each state had its own threshold for inclusion based on geography and population.

Note that not all the winners were interviewed. In some cases, the interviewers were unable to get the chef on the phone. ("Some may have thought it was a sales job," Biddle says, "or the interviewer was told by the manager the chef was too busy or whatever.") Every chef who was interviewed was told that being interviewed did not mean they would make the list. Making the list was strictly about being mentioned favorably by other chefs. In the end, Biddle says, "less than half the chefs who made the list also were interviewed."

The germ of the idea sprouted over cocktails early last spring in Charleston between two friends—Blalock, who was in the process of opening a restaurant in town (Stars Rooftop & Grill Room, which opened last September)—and attorney Gabe Joseph, who became BCA's chief operating officer. The fourth member of the executive team, Elizabeth Fishburne, was brought in during the summer and became the marketing coordinator.

To get a grip on who's who in any given area, and compile a short list of "seed names" to begin calling, interviewers did their homework. In New Jersey, for example, they combed New Jersey Monthly's archived online reviews, profiles, reader polls and such, and they did the same with the state's major newspapers, social media sites, food blogs and so on. (None of the publications were notified, Biddle says. Indeed, since BCA was looking at public information, there was no reason to notify anyone.)

None of those reviews, articles, Zagat ratings, etc., had any bearing on which chefs got into the book, Biddle emphasizes. They simply helped interviewers figure out who to begin calling. The only thing that mattered was who chefs recommended when you got them on the phone.

If you could get them on the phone.

Anyone who has ever asked chefs their pet peeves knows that they feel constantly bombarded by people calling them to buy ads, contribute to charity events or pay for some kind of promotion or publicity. The predictable result is they are leery of getting on the phone with people from organizations they never heard of—like, at first, Best Chefs America.

"Chefs were skeptical at first, to say the least," Biddle says.

But the BCA interviewers persevered, and once they got to explain the project to a few chefs, those chefs would suggest others they should talk to, and the project gathered speed.

When I looked at the list of New Jersey's 196 honorees, many names jumped out at me. My first impression was that all the stars were there, all the high-end players, including most of the chefs on our August, 2012 list of the 25 Best Restaurants in the state.

But there were many other familiar names as well—some who made our Top 25 in earlier years, some new to the state, some whose places have been popular for many years, a couple known more for their business acumen or community spirit than for the flat-out specialness of their food, and one or two whose restaurants have recently or not so recently closed.

Also among the anointed 196 were many names I didn't recognize at all. In some cases I'd been to their restaurants. In others, I knew of the restaurant but had not eaten there. In yet others, I hadn't even heard of the place.

New Jersey is thought of as a small state, but its dining scene is actually pretty big. California has the most chefs in the BCA book. New York is second. Dense, congested New Jersey—teeming with life from one end to the other, even in the less populous South—ranks sixth in number of BCA chefs.

Still, 196 stuck in my brain. Is it perhaps a tad high? A little lenient? Is this not as exclusive a club as one might want on which to slap the label "Best"?

I put the question to Biddle, who answered in general, not specifically about New Jersey.

"There are more exclusive awards," he acknowledged. "But this is about the chefs themselves, and given what's happened in dining the last 10 to 15 years, the numbers are not hard to believe. It's a little daunting to imagine that there are that many [deserving honorees], but it's actually very few relative to how many chefs are practicing."

In terms of New Jersey, he continued, "There were chefs at big name restaurants, but a chef at a no-name restaurant mentioned five times can be equally significant" in point score. BCA did not set a random cutoff point for inclusion, but looked for "natural cutoffs" where scores drop off significantly. He said that Jersey scores dropped off after the first 196, "but you couldn't cut off before that."

I can't comment on that, but I do think the honor of making the grade would be more meaningful if BCA had done what chefs routinely do—reduce the sauce, skimming the fat, evaporating the water, concentrating the most flavorful parts.

Still, the enterprise overall strikes me as positive and well-intentioned. I know from my own conversations with chefs that they value the good opinion of their fellows more than any other.

But I do have reservations, no pun intended. First, chefs work incredibly hard, on their feet 12-14 hours a day, often six days a week. They don't get to eat out that often, and when they do they tend to go to restaurants owned by their friends and frequented by other friends.

For many, their only opportunity to eat out is on the usually one day a week their restaurant is closed, often a Monday. And their choice of restaurants on a Monday is therefore limited. When they eat after a shift is over, on any day, very often it's near or after midnight and, again, many places they have heard good things about and would like to try are not open.

Of course, at a certain level of seniority, reputation and especially ownership, executive chefs are freed from the daily grind on the line. They expedite—checking finished orders at the pass-through before the wait staff brings them to the tables. More important, they may not have to be in the restaurant virtually every hour of every day it is open. So they do have a chance to get around. It's hard to say how many lead such privileged lives.

And getting back to the issue of loyalty, never forget that a restaurant staff in the thick of service on a busy night is not unlike a platoon of soldiers under heavy fire, hanging in, watching each other's backs (stabbing certain backs in some cases, yes). But chefs emerge from such trials battle-tested, and tend to remain semper fi to those who fought with them, especially those who showed them the ropes, gave them a break, a chance to make their way into the rarefied ranks of executive chef, owner and celebrity.

Bear that in mind when you peruse this list of NJ's 196, or any of the 4,650. (The NJ list is below, in no order that I can discern. That's how it came from BCA. My colleague Rosie Saferstein named a number of well-known honorees here.)

Now, if you're wondering what the 4,650 chefs who made the cut get, the answer is nothing.

Well, almost nothing. They do get one free Best Chefs America window decal. Additional decals are $10 each. The price of the book is $75 for everybody, even the honorees, who can order an aluminum and acrylic plaque for $125, an iron-on rayon patch for $25 or a book plus plaque for $175 (a $25 savings!). Free shipping on everything, BTW.

Charging the honorees, isn't that kind of…Scroogish?

"Without that it wouldn't work," Biddle said, speaking of the economics of the venture.

CEO Blalock also weighed in on this touchy subject.

"The most important thing the chefs get is the ability to use the Best Chefs honor in their advertising, thereby increasing their customers," he wrote in an email. "I would only add that chefs also get a commitment from BCA to promote them—their distinction—aggressively."

The BCA team has little time to bask in what Biddle calls "the fantastic reaction so far among chefs." It's almost time to gear up for the 2014 edition.

"This year we will balance phone interviews with email interviews," Biddle said. "Email will be more efficient, but it wouldn't have worked last year because the chefs wouldn't have known who we were."

BCA might still face a climb. At last weekend's New Jersey Wine and Food Festival at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, dozens of top chefs mingled.

"It's always nice to be recognized by our peers," said one chef who is in the book but was not interviewed by BCA. "But in terms of speaking with other chefs, [the book] hasn't seemed to be a topic of conversation. At the festival, it wasn't mentioned at all, so I'm not sure it's on anyone's radar."



Best Chefs America: New Jersey
First Last Restaurant City
Stephen Schwartzinger Mattar's Bistro Allamuchy Township
Guiseppe Biancalana Café 2825 Atlantic City
Cosimo Cassano Girasole Atlantic City
Frank Dougherty Dock's Oyster House Atlantic City
Jeff Gotta Carmine's Atlantic City
Nery Hernandez Buddakan Atlantic City
Geoff Johnson Roman Grill Linwood
Kevin Kelly Steve & Cookies By the Bay Margate
Fernando Masci Il Mulino New York Atlantic City
Rosalba Morici Girasole Atlantic City
Luke Palladino Luke Palladino Northfield
Carmen Rone Tomatoes Margate
Chris Scarduzio Mia Atlantic City
Sergio Soto Gallagher's Steakhouse Atlantic City
Joseph Tucker Catch Longport
Joe Brown Melange Café Haddonfield
Francisco Cabrera El Sitio Collingswood
Alex Capasso Blackbird Dining Establishment Collingswood
Manish Chopra Cross Culture Haddonfield
Mario DiVentura Filomena Lakeview Deptford
Vincent Fanari Dream Cuisine Café Cherry Hill
Samuel Giumarello Giumarello’s Restaurant & G Bar Lounge Haddon Township
Daniel Hover Ritz Seafood Voorhees
Masaharu Ito Fuji Haddonfield
Fred Kellermann Elements Café Haddon Heights
Justin Kunkel Kunkel's Seafood & Steakhouse Haddon Heights
Franco Lombardo Sapori Collingswood
Pasquale Masters Pasta Pomodoro Voorhees
Matthew McElmoyl Oliver a bistro Bordentown
Robert Minniti Bacio Catering Moorestown
Nunzio Patruno Nunzio Ristorante Rustico Collingswood
John Pilarz Anthony's Creative Italian Cuisine Haddon Heights
Marianne Powell A Little Café Camden
Joshua Reeves Barnsboro Inn Sewell
Chris Sammons Zinc Café Medford
Robin Winzinger Robin's Nest Mount Holly
Anthony Bucco The Ryland Inn Whitehouse Station
Chris Connors Anton's at the Swan Lambertville
Brian Held Brian's Lambertville
Christopher Hirsheimer Canal House Cooking Lambertville
Matt McPherson Matt's Red Rooster Grill Flemington
Mark Miller Hamilton's Grill Room Lambertville
DeAnna Paterra DeAnna's Restaurant Lambertville
Yoshi Arisu Englishtown
Andrew Araneo Drew's Bayshore Bistro Keyport
Giovanni Atzori Undici Rumson
Chris Brandl Brandl. Belmar
Ron Caudill Raven and the Peach Fair Haven
Joseph Cetrulo Stella Marina Asbury Park
Ian Cooper Manasquan
Terry Eleftheriou Shipwreck Grill Brielle
Chris Estelle Asbury Park
Darryl Feeney red Red Bank
Dominique Filoni Avenue Long Branch
Scott Giordano Whispers Spring Lake
Nicholas Harary Restaurant Nicholas Red Bank
Matthew Higgins La Cipollina Ristorante Freehold
Taka Hirai Taka Asbury Park
Paul Holzheimer Porta Asbury Park
Brian Imbriale The Wine Bar Atlantic Highlands
Bobby Johnson Clementine's Avon-by-the-Sea
Brian Katz 10th Ave Burrito Co. Belmar
Michael Krikorian Copper Canyon Atlantic Highlands
Steffan Manno Giamano's Ristorante Bradley Beach
Ulisses Nova Metropolitan Café Freehold
John Panebianco Brando's Citi Cucina Asbury Park
Casey Pesce d'jeet? Shrewsbury
Joe Pisacreta Il Giardinello Ristorante Asbury Park
Alex Rogers The Inlet Café Highlands
Joe Romanowski Bay Ave Trattoria Highlands
Marilyn Schlossbach Langosta Lounge Asbury Park
Nicholas Wilkins Restaurant Nicholas Red Bank
Shuenn Yang Yumi Sea Bright
Eric Yegelwel Nicchio Belmar
Matthew Zappoli Tre Amici Long Branch
Peter Angelakos Bacari Grill Washington Township
Gaspard Caloz Madeleine's Petit Paris Northvale
Steve Christianson St. Eve's Ho-Ho-Kus
Thomas Ciszak Chakra Paramus
Ronny Cohen White Manna Hamburgers Hackensack
Alex Daku Le Jardin Edgewater
Hans Egg The Saddle River Inn Saddle River
Matthew Gavzie MK Valencia Ridgefield Park
George Georgiades Varka Estiatorio Ramsey
Gino Gjevukaj Dimora Norwood
Alex Gorant AXIA Taverna Tenafly
John Halligan The Park Steakhouse Park Ridge
Kevin Kohler Café Panache Ramsey
Craig Levy RoCCA Glen Rock
Peter Loria Café Matisse Rutherford
John Marsano The Brick House Wyckoff
Fred Mortati A Mano Pizza Ridgewood
Christine Nunn Picnic, The Restaurant Fair Lawn
Carlo Orlando A Mano Pizza Ridgewood
Kevin Portscher Village Green Restaurant Ridgewood
William Roane McCormick & Schmick's Hackensack
Andrew Rodriguez Ho-Ho-Kus Inn Ho-Ho-Kus
Seth Warshaw Etc. Steakhouse Teaneck
Adam Weiss Esty Street Park Ridge
Denis Whitton Harvest Bistro Closter
Bryan Gregg Jersey City
Mattias Gustafsson Madame Claude Cafe Jersey City
Archie Mejia Sabor Latin Bistro North Bergen
Rodney Petersen Amanda's Hoboken
Anthony Pino Bin 14 Hoboken
Adriana Politis GP's Guttenberg
Maricel Presilla Cucharamama Hoboken
Chris Siversen Maritime Parc Jersey City
Bill Spitz Bistro La Source Jersey City
Ken Trickilo Liberty House Jersey City
Wally Weaver 3 Forty Grill Hoboken
Michael Chu Ming II Morristown
David Drake Alice's Restaurant Lake Hopatcong
Antonio Grande Il Capriccio Whippany
Natale Grande Il Capriccio Whippany
James Laird Restaurant Serenade Chatham
Brooks Nicklas Rosemary and Sage Riverdale
Jeffrey Orel Rod's Steak & Seafood Grille Morristown
Ralph Perrotti LuNello's Montville Inn Montville
Matthew Pierone The Gourmet Café Parsippany
David Prusin David Todd's City Tavern Morristown
John Schaefer Tabor Road Tavern Morris Plains
Manop Sutipayakul Origin Morristown
Kevin Takafuji Blue Morel Morristown
Fredy Umanzor Tim Schafer's Cuisine Morristown
J.R. Belt Stage Left New Brunswick
Andrea DiMeglio Luca's Ristorante North Brunswick
Brian Karluk Steakhouse 85 New Brunswick
Bruce Lefebvre The Frog and the Peach New Brunswick
Justin Quint Clydz New Brunswick
Ira Siegel Just Old Bridge Township
Alex Stotler Due Mari New Brunswick
Joe Albergo Rose Mediterranean Caldwell
Mitchell Altholz The Manor West Orange
Zod Arifai Blu Montclair
Claude Browne Basilico Millburn
Humberto Campos Jr. Restaurant Lorena's Maplewood
Michael Carrino Pig & Prince Montclair
Ryan Depersio Fascino Montclair
Ariane Duarte CulinAriane Montclair
Tre Ghoshal Adara Montclair
Alexandre Gomes Mompou Tapas Newark
Lance Knowling Indigo Kitchen Montclair
Francesco Palmieri The Orange Squirrel Bloomfield
Juan Andres Placencia Costanera Restaurant Montclair
Anthony Pucciarello Cielo Fairfield
Dan Richer Arturo's Osteria & Pizzeria Maplewood
Adam Rose Nico Kitchen and Bar Newark
Louis Seger Lu Nello Cedar Grove
Charles Tutino Verjus Restaurant Maplewood
Heinrich K. Aichem Black Forest Inn Stanhope
Andre de Waal Andre's Newton
Michael Weisshaupt Restaurant Latour Hamburg
Jose Aviles Paterson
Carlo Carbonaro Bottagra Hawthorne
Jose Velez Toscania Trattoria Little Falls
Kristopher Greene Atlantic Bar & Grill Seaside Park
Mike Jurusz 709 Point Pleasant
Artie Keenan Bay Head Yacht Club Bay Head
Christopher Albrecht Eno Terra Kingston
Tim Amoroso Witherspoon Grill Princeton
Scott Anderson elements Princeton
Frank Caponi Medittera Princeton
Chris Graciano Witherspoon Grill Princeton
Mario Mangone Chambers Walk Café & Catering Lawrenceville
Will Mooney The Brothers Moon Hopewell
Manuel Perez The Peacock Inn Princeton
Salvatore Scarlata Vidalia Lawrenceville
Craig Shelton Aeon Hospitality Holdings, LLC Princeton
Bobby Trigg The Ferry House Princeton
Edgar Urias Blue Point Grill Princeton
Jim Weaver Tre Piani Princeton
Justin Braun Rocky Hill
Bill Dorrler Osteria Morini Bernardsville
Mark Farro Uproot Restaurant Warren
David Felton Ninety Acres Peapack
Corey Heyer The Bernard's Inn Bernardsville
Melissa Hill twofiftytwo Bedminster
Scott Howlett Sublime Peapack
Kevin Knevals Osteria Morini Bernardsville
Allan Russo Sette Bernardsville
Filippo Russo Da Filippo's Ristorante Somerville
John Tocci Water & Wine Watchung
Kara Decker A Toute Heure Cranford
Andrew DiCataldo Patria Rahway
Bill Hendra Huntley Taverne Summit
Bruce Johnson Roots Steakhouse Summit
Joseph Mastrella Luciano's Ristorante Rahway
C.J. Reycraft Jr. Chez Catherine Westfield
Frank Rizzo The Italian Pantry Bistro Cranford
Ed Stone Baltusrol Golf Club Springfield
Peter Turso Ursino Union
George Vastardis Limani Seafood Grill Westfield
Carl Messick Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant Cape May
Anthony Micari The Ebbitt Room Cape May
Claude Pottier Claude's Restaurant North Wildwood

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Tags: Restaurants | Best Restaurants | restaurants poll

Great Eats

I have dined at the Continental where Nery Hernandez was formerly the executive chef. His food was terrific, great choice.

As to the organization of the list - it seems to be grouped by county.

Posted by: KC, Haddonfield | Apr 10, 2013 20:43:46 PM |

Nery Hernandez - Great Chef

I have seen Chef Nery Hernandez progress through his career and experienced his food since he was in DC. Great food, great chef, and keeping watching his career! He’s going far.

Posted by: CAH, Cherry Hill New Jersey | Apr 10, 2013 20:51:01 PM |

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